Journalist reaches settlement in defamation case with Haitian prime minister

Latara Appleby | Prior Restraints | News | October 31, 2013

Haitian-American journalist Leo Joseph reached a settlement in the defamation case against him brought by Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.

"He went toe to toe with the prime minister of Haiti, and the prime minister blinked," said Scott Ponce, Joseph's attorney.

Lamothe wanted a retraction of the story and an apology. In the end, he did not get either. But as part of the settlement, Joseph will publish a declaration by Michael Charles, the source he cited in the article in question. Charles submitted the declaration to the court denying that he gave Joseph the information and later told a third party that that was not true. Joseph, if he chooses, can then publish a rebuttal to the declaration, according to Ponce.

Lamothe sued Joseph and and the Haiti-Observateur, a New York City-based, bilanguage Haitian newspaper managed by Joseph, over statements Lamothe claimed were false and defamatory in four articles, but the case later focused on one article in particular.

The article alleged that Lamothe had improperly benefited financially from the sale of a telecommunications company and that the prime minister exerted political pressure on an investment firm to issue payments for the sale.

In early 2013, a federal judge in Miami entered a default judgment against Joseph because he did not respond to the complaint. (Haiti-Observateur was no longer a defendant at that point.) The judge then ordered Joseph not to publish anything about Lamothe.

"Leo Joseph is hereby permanently restrained from publishing future communications to any third-parties concerning or regarding” Lamothe and businessman Patrice Baker “in either their professional, personal or political lives,” said the February 2013 order.

Joseph then asked the court to reverse the default judgment and order, arguing that the order constituted an unlawful prior restraint.

The judge reversed the default judgment in April and ordered the parties to file a more detailed complaint, asking Lamothe to explain in more detail how Joseph met the "actual malice" standard -- which is what public officials must prove before they can win a defamation claim.

Lamothe initially refused to appear at the deposition because it was going to be videotaped. After the court compelled him to appear, the prime minister at one point walked out because they were asking questions that were uncomfortable for him, according to Ponce. They were able to complete the deposition on their third attempt. The court has sealed the recordings at Lamothe's request.

The parties then agreed to settle before going to trial. The Reporters Committee aided Joseph in finding pro bono counsel to represent him in this case.